The wrong lens. The wrong filters. The wrong settings. Only a fraction of a second in which to aim, focus and shoot.
Ah, the curse of nature photography.
Still, it could be worse: I could have no camera with which to work.
A male red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). I stood in my garage one morning and heard the telltale knock-knock-knock announcing one of his kind. Too far away for me to see clearly, especially on an overcast day, only his bright red hood allowed me to find him. His camouflage otherwise rendered him invisible to me.
Ignoring the squirrels who ran up and down the tree with abandon, he pecked here and there as he danced about the bark with precision and expertise. I can’t imagine he had much luck looking for breakfast given how little time he spent in any one spot. Or perhaps it was the annoying play of the tree rodents that kept him from feeling comfortable enough to enjoy a meal. He certainly wouldn’t have had any peace while doing so.
A male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). I heard him before I saw him. As I made my way up a hill toward a dense collection of trees, his voice echoed around me even as he remained hidden in the treetops. I looked and looked, letting my eyes follow my ears, yet all I could make out was a shadow dancing amongst shadows. If I approached, his position vanished behind thick foliage; and it was the same if I backed up. All I could do was stand my ground and wait.
Then, as if on queue, he flitted to a position higher in the tree that afforded me a sunlit view. I snapped photo after photo, not caring to review each one before taking the next, for I knew with cardinals that a moment offered is a gift. So I took advantage of it, and only later while reviewing the pictures did I realize he had been eating the whole time I had watched. A bit of seed detritus around his beak made that clear.
A juvenile Bewick’s wren (Thryomanes bewickii). Standing atop a picnic table where I hoped to gain a better vantage of the lake, a recognizable yet foreign song trilled upon the air from behind me. Quite a way behind me, I thought, and I turned to look. Down the hill and across the creek from where I stood, in a place held against the rising sun like a statue meant to pay homage to a god of ancient times, a simple tree branch reached into the ether betwixt me and it, and upon that branch stood a form I could not recognize from such a great distance.
Even then its song grew to encompass the voice of a recognizable being. It must surely be a Bewick’s wren. I squinted against the sunlight even as I tried to snap a photograph or two. It was impossible to know what I might be focusing on since the bird remained so far away and I looked into the hobbling light of morning. Despite the chasm that separated us, imagine my surprise when I found this blessed little creature hiding in the middle of a vast wasteland of digital mayhem.
A female ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). My parents and I stood near the side porch at the family farm as the entire place buzzed with activity, from lizards scampering about the ground and walls to insects flitting and crawling to a plethora of birds painting the sky with one feather-brushed stroke after another. We hardly knew where to look for the next amazing sight.
Then as if beckoned by a desire to see beauty incarnate, one of the many hummingbirds in the area soared in with utmost abandon as she made her way toward one of several feeders Mom keeps on the property. Focused intently on a shiny bobble of life elsewhere, I missed the tiny creature as she flew around the corner of the house, hovered momentarily to make certain we posed no threat, then turned her attention to the fast-food nature of sugar water offered up alongside the many species of flower that lure in the other piece of the hummingbird diet: insects. As soon as I turned and saw her, I lifted the camera and snapped a photo—Settings be damned!
A great blue heron (Ardea herodias) soaring by two double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus). The cormorants I saw; the heron took me by surprise. On my favorite pier at my favorite place at White Rock Lake—Sunset Bay—I slowly took in the view of wildlife filling the moment, and I then focused on two cormorants sunning themselves atop a log. Even they remained well beyond the scope of my camera and lens, at least what I held in my hands at that moment, yet something about the ducks swimming just beyond them and the cerulean blue of the water reflecting an empty sky all about them made me want that second, that fraction of a breath.
Even as I squeezed the button on the camera, even as I held my body taught with rigidity, the most fantastic creature flew into view, its wings nearly touching the cormorants as it flew over their position. I tried to follow it, tried to imagine the spectacular results of this unforeseen picture-grabbing instant. Would that I had been better prepared for such an opportunity.
Two male ruddy ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis). They might as well have been on the other side of the planet from me. As I walked and roamed and ambled, my mind filled with nothing more important than what gift nature might offer around the next corner, I found myself within the confines of a small inlet on the eastern shores of White Rock Lake, a brief excursion from the beaten path that defined itself by the reeds that sheltered it from the whole of the park.
Behind those reeds and quite some distance from the shore slept a veritable flotilla of ducks, most with tails held firmly toward the sky in defiance of gravity and sleep. Yet I could not, for the life of me, see them clearly. The sun floated directly in my line of sight, the water reflecting its onslaught with eager pain, and I, defiant to the end, wanted to see what could not be seen. Having no idea upon what I focused, I pressed the button time and again with dismay and pleasure mixing into a single, finite instant. What would these pictures show? What horrible imagery would I delete in due time?